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Aaron Gordon is proving to be Denver’s X-Factor come playoff time

We are seeing AG at his best right now

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

While the Denver Nuggets are priming themselves for a playoff run, their forward Aaron Gordon is preparing himself to be their x-factor. Although Nikola Jokic has led the team in scoring for the past 17 outings, Gordon has been the ideal Robin to the Batman Jokic. In Gordon’s last six games, he averages 20 points, 7.2 rebounds on 60.5% shooting from the field and 54.5% shooting from three. He is also Denver’s leader in plus/minus during that stretch at 11.2, which is three points better than Jokic at 8.2.

He is flourishing at a time when he is needed the most. The Nuggets were in deep trouble of falling into the play-in spot, and they desperately needed a running mate beside Jokic to produce. Not only has Denver created space from that play-in spot, but they also generated a real competition for the 5th seed with Utah.

Gordon’s role on this team is essential. Jokic carries most of the responsibilities, but Gordon might be second in line. He is the team’s best defender, so he may sometimes defend the opponent's best guard and/or their best forward/wing. Not only does he have to execute on that end of the floor, but he also has to remain active on the offensive and defensive glass, along with the significant cutting action he brings to the offense.

The point being, I don't think enough credit is given to Gordon for all the responsibilities he has during every game. He has to be in fantastic shape because many of his duties are positionless activities. We expect good defensive showings from him every night because he does not cheat this game with effort, but he is one of the more underrated players in the league when he is effective on the offensive end.

Get big

When AG is at his best, it is because he is dominating the paint. At 6’9” 220 lbs, he is a bit undersized for a traditional power forward, but he is the perfect fit in today's game. His extreme athleticism allows him to jump out of the gym, and his strength offers him mismatch opportunities against smaller players.

The paint duo between Jokic and Gordon can be unstoppable at times. The Nuggets are the highest paint-scoring team in the league over their last six games. They are averaging 61 points in that area, while Gordon and Jokic are accounting for over half that at a combined 34 points per game.

The chemistry between Jokic and Gordon is becoming a beautiful thing to witness. They both know where the other loves to operate and where the other has the best chance of succeeding. So many times this season, we have seen Gordon creep down the baseline while Jokic is doubled, and without hesitation, he sees Gordon for a lob dunk.

AG is scoring 58% of his shots in the paint over his last ten games, which is frequently a recipe for success. During that stretch, the team is also shooting 18.7 free throws when he is on the court, compared to just 5 when he is off the court. He can disseminate his aggressive paint mentality throughout the lineup, and when the Nuggets are productive in the paint, it opens the entire floor for the rest of the team.

The Nuggets love to see this type of action, but it is usually Jokic feeding Gordon. The fact that Davon Reed is the facilitator here tells you the team chemistry is on point. Reed does a great job by being aggressive toward the basket because he will draw the attention of four Laker defenders. Gordon knows Melo will shade into the paint to help, so he begins to squat to get ready for the lob and signal Reed to throw it. Then Gordon displays his elite athleticism by catching this lob one-handed over the square and finishing it.

Here is another clip I just had to put in here because it is one of the best alley-oops you will see, but these plays are also vital if you can obtain them. Gordon runs the floor well, so he and Monte have run enough fast breaks to know the result of this play. There’s nobody in the paint before Monte throws this, so he tosses a bit of an errant lob pass, but Gordon shows how fluid his body is and catches this reverse style, what seems like five feet from the hoop and flushes it home. Although Denver lost this game, the crowd erupted, and it gave the Nuggets enough momentum to gain a lead after that.

Off-ball positioning

This is one of the more crucial parts of Gordon’s game that creates the great play between him and Jokic. Jokic needs cutters to move throughout the floor, and when you can have a cutter that can finish with a lob dunk, it makes everything more manageable because you often don't have to worry about a blocked shot.

Gordon has the potential to score anywhere on the floor, but his role on offense is to dominate mismatches in the post, cut to the basket, and find open catch and shoot opportunities. This role often requires receiving a pass instead of isolation play.

That notion is important because the disparity in production is wide between Gordon’s assisted and unassisted shots. He is shooting 66.7% when assisted on his two-point field goals over his last ten games. On unassisted two-point field goals, he is shooting just 33%. So when Gordon is positioning himself well off the ball, he is an elite threat, but he does not share near the same success when he tries to isolate.

This play is an excellent representation of how easy it can be for him when he makes the right cuts. First, we see Boogie doubled in the post along with Gordon and Reed on the near side perimeter. In the modern NBA, you often see players stay at the three-point line because that one Laker defender between Gordon and Reed will have to choose between them. Gordon makes the wise decision and cuts to the rim resulting in an easy dunk. This is how you close a quarter because if he stays on the perimeter, he takes the chance at a lesser percentage shot but knows he is not missing that wide-open dunk.

Catch and shoot threes

When AG has this in his repertoire combined with aggressive paint play, he is in full beast mode, which we saw against the Lakers. He is shooting 47% from beyond the arc in his last ten games, with just over three attempts per game. He sank 3-5 threes and hit 9-14 from the floor overall against LA.

The Nuggets are shooting 41.6% from three over their last eight games when he is on the court. Yes, his effective perimeter shooting of late protects those numbers, but his activity in the paint helps Denver’s shooters obtain open looks. Plus, it assists in his opportunities from three because when players score more accessible buckets early, it often allows them to lock in their stroke from the perimeter.

Denver’s effective paint presence is needed for Gordon to be efficient from three because most of his perimeter makes are assisted. Nearly 86% of his three-point makes are from assists. His most efficient three-point shot seems to be the corner three. In that right corner, he is shooting 35.6% on the season. Over his last six games, he is shooting 40% from the left corner, 50% from the right, and nearly 64% on above the break threes.

This was a big shot, and it was not an easy one. Nuggets were down seven looking for some scoring momentum, and Gordon provided it here. His positioning is clever because he draws Anthony Davis on defense, and knowing AD, he is a rim protector, so he likes to stay inside. The driving action between Monte and Jokic evokes Davis’s attention, which leaves Gordon open from three. Yes, this is an open shot, but it becomes much more difficult when the 7’6” wingspan of Anthony Davis is flying at you. Gordon does not think twice about the closeout and quickly knocks it down. That’s a confident jump shot and a welcome sight to see out of AG.

Gordon struggled with his perimeter shot in March as he shot 24% from three during that month, but he is peaking at the right time. His numbers skyrocketed at the end of March, and they are continuing their upward swing in April. Gordon is not a “do it yourself” type of scorer, but that is why his role fits so beautifully with this team. Their offensive identity is predicated on excellent ball movement, and when that ball ends in the hands of Gordon, he is making them pay. His diverse skill set, paired with his strength near the basket, will be something Denver relies upon heavily come playoff time.